Feb 21 2013 2:00pm

The Science of Future Past: Part 6

The Science of Future Past: Part 6In today’s installment of Science of Future Past, we finish up our look at Foundation with a discussion of The Merchant Princes.

The Merchant Princes is one of the most exciting parts of Foundation in my opinion. It’s got it all, action, economics, science, political intrigue, and lively court battles. The part I want to discuss today takes places towards the end of the story. Hober Mallow, after surviving all of the dangers pertaining to the aforementioned story elements, finds himself as the head of a state on the brink of war.

War and Economic Embargos

On the surface, things appear bleak for the Foundation. Their Korellian enemies have the advantage of superior numbers and seemingly superior weaponry thanks to the backing of the remnants of the galactic empire.

Despite this growing threat, Mallow knows two things that allow him to face the threat with minimal concern. First, there’s the fact that the remnants of the empire’s technology is breaking down and nobody understands the technology well enough to fix it:

Why, they don’t even understand their own colossi any longer. The machines work from generation to generation automatically, and the caretakers are a hereditary caste who would be helpless if a single D-tube in all that vast structure burnt out.

The second is the knowledge that the Korellians depend upon the Foundation’s technology for their economic prosperity and material comforts, and therefore the people will eventually rebel against their leaders who are attempting to wage war against the source of that prosperity and comfort.

There will just be a knife that won’t cut, and a stove that won’t cook, and a house that freezes in the winter. It will be annoying, and people will grumble.

When two years of the stalemate have gone, the machines in the factories will, one by one, begin to fail. Those industries which we have changed from first to last with our new nuclear gadgets will find themselves very suddenly ruined. The heavy industries will find themselves, en masse and at a stroke, the owners of nothing but scrap machinery that won’t work.

He concludes with a remark that is both historically accurate and chillingly prophetic considering recent events in North Korea:

A king, or a Commdor, will take the ships and even make war. Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects’ welfare for what they consider honor, and glory, and conquest. But it’s still the little things in life that count—and Asper Argo won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.

Forgotten Lore

I’ve already mentioned in this series how Asimov’s Foundation warns us against the peril of becoming dependent upon technology that we don’t understand. Today I want to discuss a related but perhaps more troubling issue, the risk of forgetting how to survive without those technologies. How many of us have the basic skills necessary to provide ourselves with food, shelter, and warmth if left entirely to our own devices?

Here are a few essential “low-tech” technologies that most people in our grandparents’ generation were intimately acquainted with, but which modern technology has allowed us to forget entirely.

Food Preservation

Canning and preserving food, once the only way to ensure your family wouldn’t starve during the winter, is now a hobby amongst only a few. You may see people selling their quaint jars of preserves and salted meat at the county fair or local farmer’s market, but have you ever stopped to wonder how you would make it through the winter if the stores ran out of Lean Cuisine?

If this sounds like something from a dystopian prepper story, just speak with anyone who’s lived through a major disaster such as a hurricane, tsunami, flood, or major power outage in the last few years and ask how long it took for the stores to run out of food.

Food Preparation

While we’re on the subject of food, let’s talk a moment about food preparation. Things like homemade bread have become a popular hobby, but how many of us could make a loaf of bread without a bread machine? Or prepare meals without a microwave?

Reading epic fantasy while growing up led me to believe that to make a good stew you just needed a kettle of water boiling over a fire with some vegetables and chunks of meat tossed in.

Keeping Warm

Back when I was in Boy Scouts, the most exciting part of any campout was starting the fire. I remember one hike where we were caught in the rain for several hours, when we finally arrived at the place we were planning to camp, everything was soaked. The idea of starting a fire looked pretty hopeless. Fortunately one of the adult leaders on the hike with us that day was one of those rare scouters with an actually proficiency in outdoors skills. He showed us how we could find dead twigs and branches still attached to trees, scrape off the wet bark, and easily use them to make a fire. We spent the night in comfort and I resolved to learn more woodcraft.


If you wish you knew more of these types of skills, you’re in luck because knowledge is power and most of that knowledge is free. Here’s a collection of resources that can help keep you from caving in to despair should your planet ever attempt a war against the Foundation:

Those are just a few. If you’re more into books and videos, I highly recommend the Survivor Man series, which shows (amongst other fun skills) not only how to start a fire without matches, but also just how long different techniques can take. For canning, nothing beats The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

Do you know other essential skills I’ve omitted? Share your thoughts and resources in the comments.

Dr. Lee Falin is a Bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute, the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into science fiction and fantasy short stories for middle grade and young adult readers.

Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
Economic embargos (or sanctions) are a form of siege warfare: as long as you can keep the pressure up while the enemy struggles to break the siege, you should win. I am not so sanguine about how to keep the pressure up if the enemy is applying superior military force to my economic embargo, as my population is going to suffer quite a bit during the period in which the enemy is still able to actively pursue violence.

As for survival tips, after getting the fire started and before canning the food, purifying the water (via solar or thermal distillation over said fire) might be a good step.
Eugene R.
2. Gerry__Quinn
It's not necessary for everyone to know these things - all that is needed is for some to know, and teach the rest. And some stuff you could probably figure out if you had to, e.g. drying meat.
Eugene R.
3. olethros
Gardening, hunting, and fishing would be pretty important, too. Hard to preserve food if you have none.
Eugene R.
4. o.m.
When you think about disasters, preparedness, and skills, you should first define the scale and timeframe you're thinking about.

If you expect services and 'civilization' to be up again in hours or days, skills like first aid matter, and you should have a couple of gallons of water, some tins of food, a battery-powered light and candles, spare clothes, etc. By the time you have started that hypothetical canning operation, shouldn't the Red Cross or the National Guard or someone arrive?

If you think about a scenario where outside help won't arrive for months or years, so that preserving food would matter, what makes you think that anyone close to ground zero would survive at all? You would need a cozy catastrophe, where 99% of the people vanish peacefully while leaving 100% of the deer and rabbits for the survivors.

Besides, I don't think that one can cook with a microwave. Heating ready meals is not cooking.
Eugene R.
5. Gerry__Quinn
I cook vegetables in the microwave. You do them exactly the same as ready meals - stick a fork in them and leave them for an appropriate time.

I've been known to cook fish in it - the results aren't too great but is it really any different from steaming, poaching or boiling? Except maybe a bit better in terms of energy efficiency and preserving nutrients.

Also good for melted cheese dishes.
Lee Falin
6. leefalin
@o.m. You would hope so, but often the scale of the disaster can overwhelm the ability of rescue workers to assist. See for example the red cross response to Hurricane Sandy in New York (

Some disasasters can last even longer, causing wide-spread economic collapse without affecting the deer and rabbits at all. For just one example look at the current economic conditions of Haiti. Three years after the earthquake, 3/4 of the population is still unemployed (

Some people in Haiti have returned to a "back to basics" approach of share cropping and farming cooperatives in order to feed themselves and their families (
Lee Falin
7. leefalin
@Gerry__Quinn We also occasionally cook vegetables in the microwave.

I also think that bacon is much easier to cook in the microwave than in a frying pan. (We usually use the papertowel method:
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
As a professional emergency manager, I teach that everyone should be ready to take care of themselves without any outside assistance for a minimum of three days, including food, water, heat, etc. It takes at least that long for the government to stage and organize an effective response. Everyone should give some thought to the issue, and you can get good ideas from the website As the old sayings go, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, or a stitch in time saves nine.
The difference between an exciting event in your life, and a personal disaster, can be the amount of effort you put into preparedness.
Eugene R.
9. o.m.
@AlanBrown - yes, but would you advocate a well-stocked larder, or learning how to preserve food, and which one is more important?

My personal preparations are that I won't let stocks of some things run low. Bottled water, sugar, cookies, canned beans and lentils, rice and pasta, canned sauce for the pasta ... that is part of my menu in normal times, too, so I just put more cans in the back of the cupboard and eat the oldest first.

@leefalin - was Haiti much better before the earthquake? I remember stories of boat people for many years.
Eugene R.
10. Gerry__Quinn
A well-stocked larder would be a handy resource while getting up to speed with civilisational collapse.

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